The still developing drama or rather horror story surrounding the former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky has shaken every conscious American. Sandusky has allegedly sexually abused many boys during his years at the famed football program. The details are sickening and the psychological ramifications for all those who were the victims of these terrible experiences must be extreme. There is perhaps no worse crime than an authority figure betraying the trust of young innocent and defenseless children. As if this was not enough, some of these boys were orphans, needing even more care in a world that has put extra hurdles on their paths. Sandusky is of course not the only sick individual who has harmed young children. There are many Sanduskys out there in America and elsewhere. In an even more disturbing recent case, European authorities have arrested a porn ring, trading in videos of very young children and toddlers being sexually abused.
In the United States, over the years, we have enacted laws and regulations to protect children from these predators. But much more needs to be done at all levels, including at the level of cultural production. Without getting into the debate of what culture is, for the purpose of this short piece, I would insist that we need, as a society, to constantly ask tough questions about how the cultural directions we take affect the way individuals view childhood, violence, sexuality, and human relations among other things. It is at least a good sign that there was universal condemnation and indignation among all segments of American society concerning the Penn State University story. Sports talk shows, that usually spend countless hours discussing ridiculously irrelevant aspects of this or that game or team, spent considerable time discussing the sexual abuse part of the story. They even gave voice to people who had themselves experienced such abuse in their lives. It is safe to say that we have come a long way when it comes to keeping children safe from the horrific experience of abuse. I wish this was the case in the world in which I was born and raised.
In many parts of the “Muslim” world, young boys (and young girls, but I will leave that discussion to another time) are sexually abused without available protection on the part of the authorities. Even when laws are in the books, enforcement is very flawed. My personal experience and readings, as well as the anecdotal information I gathered over the years from friends belonging to different countries, have convinced me that much of the problem is tied to cultural elements. In many settings, we have a variety of factors that make it difficult to effectively fight the abuse of boys. One is that the practice of segregating the sexes limits the possibility of romantic relations for single men (the average age of marriage is now at an all-time high), but also for divorced men and “bored” married men. At the same time, the high rates of poverty make children, who spend much of their free time on the streets, an easy prey for predators that lure them with gifts or money. It is reasonable to conclude that this combination of culture and economics is connected to a significant number of sexual abuse cases. Interestingly, these cases are often known to the local residents of a particular village or neighborhood, but are kept under the rug and not publically discussed because of socio-cultural reasons. Partly as a result of the perceived shame that such stories bring on the family of the boys, everyone often acts as if nothing ever happened. This stigma comes from the fact that a “sodomized” male is seen as having compromised his manhood, even if he was a child at the time (which, interestingly, is markedly different from some pre-modern settings in which boys were “accepted” as lovers up until the time they grew “beards”).
Growing up in an urban setting and spending much time playing soccer in different neighborhoods, I recall the many stories I heard from my peers about authority figures (sometimes a schoolteacher, other times an imam entrusted with teaching religion to children) who have sexually abused this or that boy. I do not know how much hyperbole is included in these stories; it is indeed possible that some claims are exaggerated, but the reality is that no one ever seemed to seriously investigate these “rumors.” All I can attest to is that boys close to me had quietly suffered from abuse without ever being able to ever do anything about it, knowing well the stigma attached to voicing one’s suffering. The Sanduskys of “back home” often lived much safer lives than the boys they abused. Until today, when I informally bring the subject with acquaintances from a variety of countries, I would hear of countless stories about particular regions within some of these countries in which men are known to “sleep” with boys. Even worse, one might witness light-hearted discussions during which people would joke about the fact that since person X was from region Y, he was likely “into” boys. And if I am not depressing you enough, let me add that sex tourism in our “modern” global age has made the situation ever uglier and more complicated in a number of Muslim-majority countries.
Let me finish by insisting on three points. Firstly, I don’t claim for this short presentation to be an academic exposé. It would of course be ridiculous for anyone to think so, but it is worth highlighting either way. I have no data to back my claims up; I only care about raising awareness so that the subject gathers some interest. There is a lack of studies on sexual abuse of children within “Muslim” settings; and I have to add that in spite of the amazing work of a number of non-profit organizations, it is difficult to collect reliable data, given that discussing the sexual abuse of boys, among other things, remains a big taboo. Secondly, it goes without saying that each country and locality in what we call the “Muslim” world has its own particularities and the problem of sexual abuse is treated differently in different settings. What I did however gather from the many conversations I had with people from many countries and from the readings I have done is that some of the cultural factors I discussed above generally play an important role in a large number of cases. Thirdly, I do not intend to be polemical by bringing these serious problems up. I care very little for any groups or individuals that are looking for any kind of available information to bash Muslims, Islam, or Muslim-majority countries for their own political gains. However, as an insider, I am committed to be critical of the directions we take as people belonging to “Muslim” cultures whether we are religious or not. We ought to face the difficult questions about our cultures and our religion. Our goal must always be to better ourselves and create a more livable future for our children. Sexual abuse has hit close to home for me on a number of occasions; and my hope is that we will soon move in the right direction in dealing with this very serious problem.